One thing that has frequently dismayed me about some of my first-generation Polish family, quasi-family, and acquaintances in Chicago has been their xenophobia. A geography professor at UIUC once stated that many immigrants arrived in the U.S. exposed to one set of prejudices only to continue practicing them here. It seems, though, that too many also took up new prejudices, especially against other ethnic groups. I don’t just single out the Poles here; every ethnic, religious, national, and social group –even mutt Americans– have done the same over this country’s history.
I mention the Poles, though, for several reasons. First, I am Polish, so this is my first-hand experience. Secondly, along with Mexicans, Poles make up the two largest ethnic populations in Chicago. Most importantly, however, I have observed that –ribbing, misunderstanding, and agitation aside– the two groups are cut from remarkably similar cloth, if not from the same bolt of fabric. Whenever I have mentioned this to some of my more close-minded Polish compatriots, they looked at me like I was crazy. But the evidence does not lie: the intense Catholic faith, the popularity of soccer among even those born here, and the propensity for accordions in their respective folk music traditions.
What really convinced me, though, occurred sometime around 1998. Growing up, I had frequently heard complaints about those Mexicans… well, all the time, but more often about the time of Cinco de Mayo. “Why do they honk their horns and fly large flags out of their cars?”, “Why are they so wild?”, “Isn’t it illegal to have a flag hanging out of your car?”, and so on. Perhaps the Poles were upset that the Mexicans had upstaged their more reserved, northern-European, Constitution Day celebrations a few days earlier (May 3rd).
But in 1998, things had changed. That year, I remember walking down to my local 7-Eleven to pick up a Sunday paper; it was around May 3rd.
That stretch of Belmont Avenue (between Oak Park Ave and Narragansett) was a somewhat Polish area, though it was more Polish further east at Belmont/Central. At this longitude, Belmont Avenue enters somewhat of a transition area nearing the western city limits. As a result, it starts subtly blending into near-suburbia (which itself is more city-like than classically suburban). Back in the 1970s/1980s, this used to be a landing area for white flight. Whites fleeing the Mexicans and blacks populating the city interior moved out to these fringe areas if they did not want to go fully suburban. My family fled Cicero & North Avenues and landed near here, about a mile north, just a hair over the city limits, actually. I say this not as a boast, just as a sober assessment and matter of plain fact. Much is, and should be, talked about white flight and real estate practices and social-civic relations; at the very least, this experience gave me a chance to experience first-hand what this was/is all about.
Yet, migrations have this tendency to change over time. Sometimes, they even reverse themselves. Many of Chicago’s more central neighborhoods, of course, are gentrifying now. As a result, the ripple of affordable housing has moved outward toward the city limits. Beginning at Belmont, at this longitude (6400 West, let’s say) and proceeding southward toward Diversey and beyond, the neighborhoods are now predominantly Mexican. to the north, they are a mix of Polish and other with increasing numbers of Mexicans. Having driven and biked Oak Park Avenue (6400 West) many many times during my years in Chicago, I had begun noticing this small change in the ethnic make-up of the area.
Let us return to May 3rd-ish, 1998. I had obliviously walked down toward Belmont that Sunday
morning afternoon. As I neared the 7-Eleven lot, some car horns caught my attention –they were attached to Polish flags waving precariously outside passing cars. Is it legal to have such a large flag flopping so dangerously outside your car??? What’s more, at the curbside were young kids on bicycles. They were waving at passing cars; they had Polish flags attached to their handlebars. Young children, Mandrake! Why must they be so wild??? Who are these hooligans? Oh yeah… look at the date!
I felt somewhat vindicated by the spectacle that day. But I still met with incredulous responses when I dared suggest such blaspheny as Polish-Mexican similarities. Hard core evidence would not come until I visited Chicago for the holidays last year (2006). I sat in my mom’s kitchen over the break and thumbed through a Polish Catholic weekly. I ran across an article written by a Polish mother whose son had met and married a Mexican woman while vacationing. She described how she got used to the cross-cultural ceremony, dual non-English languages, and strong ethnic customs from both sides. Given the forum, she cited the shared Catholic faith as something that helped smooth the union. Despite a different language and spicier foods, hey, the bride’s parents had very similar values with respect to family and worldview. Whadduyah know?
A few days later, I had the pleasure to take some close friends and K. on a “Tour de Tom”, a tour of places where I grew up and experienced things during my formative years. Our tour ended in Jackowo (yahtz – KO – vo), a neighborhood extending along Milwaukee south of Belmont, that has been a solid Polish enclave since Chicago’s founding in 1066AD. It’s sort of like the Ellis Island of Chicago Polonia, the first neighborhood in which a recent immigrant can find a small basement apartment, a work contact, and a slice of Polish rye.
I didn’t spend much time there while growing up, but some of the other Polish delis and groceries in other neighborhoods at which I shopped with my mom and uncle when I was a wee little one no longer existed. Furthermore, Jackowo remains the symbolic capitol of Chicago’s Polonia, on the North Side, that is. As a result, it’s so overwhelmingly Polish that it provides vivid visual and social snapshots of a Polish enclave to anyone who does not know what such a place might look like.
While walking around, I noticed the above two examples and managed to get a few half-hearted shots of Chicago’s Polish-Mexican fusion. At one or two stores, I might have even noticed intermingled Mexican and Polish periodicals. Given the published account that I read and seeing examples in the landscape, the evidence seems undeniable. I’ll need to go back and document more examples.
Of course, part of it is the sense of vindication in the face of people thinking I was hitting the wyborowa too hard. On the other hand, there is something more fascinating in play here. Go to any city’s “Chinatown”, for example, and the notion of Pan-Asian fusion is understandable, spatially anyway. The ethnicities are next-door neighbors. But here in Chicago, though, we are seeing trans-oceanic fusion. While these ethnic groups remain individual, with their own traditions, cuisines, and customs, there are examples were they are coming together and building a new identity in which some of those aspects are re-negotiated, expanded, and shared. And those unions, intersections, and broadenings of horizons –rather than fences, walls, and neighborhood flight– is what “America” really means.